alienation effect A term derived from the theory and theatre practice of the German Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). Brecht sought to discover ways of dramatizing Marx's insights into the operation of capitalism and spoke, with this in mind, of creating a 'dialectical theatre' (Brooker 1988). He therefore employed a set of devices in staging, music, acting, and the telling of parable, to confound an audience's comfortable identification with characters and story as encouraged by conventional realism or naturalism. Together these techniques produced the 'alienation effect'. It would be an error to think that Brecht wished in this way to reinforce alienation in Marx's sense. His intentions were precisely the opposite: to induce a 'critical attitude' which would dispel the passivity necessary to the maintenance of the conditions producing alienation under capitalism. A measure of this difference appears in the term he used in German. Marx's word was Entfremdung while Brecht wrote of the Verfremdungseffekt, for which a better translation would be 'de-alienation' effect. As such, it is related to similar devices in modernist theory and art such as 'defamiliarization' and 'estrangement', though these have not always had the overtly politicizing intention of Brecht's method.

Brecht's ideas were taken up more widely, in association with feminism, psychoanalysis and the Marxism of Louis Althusser, in the film theory of the 1970s associated with the journal Screen (see MacCabe 1974; Walsh 1981). Indeed, Brecht's concept is to some degree indebted to the theories of montage developed in Soviet cinema theory and practice of the 1920s, notably in the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein. Later examples in the 'Brechtian' tradition in theatre would be Heiner Müller, John Arden, Edward Bond, Dario Fo, among others, and in cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Marie Straub, and more indirectly, Hal Hartley and Peter Greenaway. There are those, however, who think that the alienation effect is now everywhere and nowhere: that it is present in advertising and mass TV programming as well as cinema and theatre and that consequently such devices are no longer the province of a critical avant-garde. This scepticism derives from arguments about a loss of distinction between the image and the real in postmodern society and the frustrations therefore attending any form of artistic or theoretical ideology critique. [from: Brooker, 1999]